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Taiwan: what’s in a name? 

Date:29 March 2022
Author:Louisa Thomas 
Taiwan: what's in a name? 
Taiwan: what's in a name? 

What’s in a name? It seems everything and nothing is encompassed in it. A name is an important part of one’s identity, it is one of the first things another person learns about another person, and even though it is an important part it is not static. A person has their given name, a nickname from their friends or their childhood maybe. A person can change their name if they feel the new name represents better who they are. When someone calls us by the wrong name, we correct them, if necessary, even multiple times, and if we get the name wrong of the person opposite to us it is often a source of humiliation.                                

On the international stage of politics, economics, and even sports competition it is even more important to use the correct name of a country as it could otherwise lead to unpleasant misunderstandings. One famous example was the constant confusion of the countries Switzerland (in Europe) and Swaziland (in southern Africa). This confusion led the African country to change its name to the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Swazi translation of its former name, in 2018. While this name change opened a new chapter for Eswatini away from its colonial history and the misdirected jokes of good chocolate and the flag being a big plus from politicians and journalists, name changes are not always voluntary in the current times. One country has to use a moniker in the international sphere to be even able to be interacted with by other countries without being recognized as a country itself. This is the case for Taiwan, which is also sometimes called Taiwan, Province of China in the UN; or TPKM (Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu) or Chinese Taipei in the World Trade Organization and the Olympic games; or Taipei,China in the Asian Development Bank. All of the punctuation marks and abbreviations are neither grammatical nor spelling mistakes but fully intentional, or in other words: I did not make a typo all of this is intentional. This myriad of names has one goal; to be able to interact with Taiwan on the international level without antagonizing the bigger player mainland China by officially recognizing Taiwan using its name.                                                                                                                                   

This political powder keg stems from the difficult history the two share. Since the year 1949 and the loss of the Republic of China’s government to the Communist Party of China, China and Taiwan have been in conflict over who is the legitimate body of governance. The victorious Communist Party established a new government called the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, and the retreating ROC government relocated to Taiwan at the end of the 1940s. Both governments claimed political power over China in the beginning but nowadays the question revolved more around the possibility for Taiwan to be seen as its own independent country with its own political sphere.             

Throughout the debate of who is the governing body of China the international support has shifted. Until 1971 the United Nations supported ROC (Taiwan) as the only China, but has since changed its approach and deems the PRC (mainland China) since then as the only representative of China. Through that, the United Nations relegated the question of the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China to a domestic issue that will not be influenced by the UN.                                  

Taiwan is officially recognized by only 14 small countries in the world of which some are: Belize, the Kingdom of Eswatini, Vatican City, the Holy See, and Tuvalu. Despite this, 181 other nations conduct business with Taiwan, and several of them maintain representative and trade offices on the island without recognition of Taiwan as a country. This behavior is only possible through the usage of what could be understood as “constructive ambiguity”. Constructive ambiguity characterizes phrasings that are acceptable to all parties involved without anyone having to come to a consent. It is an ambiguous reading between the lines so to say. In the case of China and Taiwan, constructive ambiguity may be best explained through an example. In the Asian Development Bank is Taiwan identified as Taipei,China, and mainland China as the People’s Republic of China, even though Taiwan is one of the founding members of the ADB. Identifying Taiwan as Taipei,China enables the ABD to have both parties as members, without identifying Taiwan as part of China and without recognizing Taiwan as its own country. This dichotomy is made even more apparent in the Olympic games where Taiwan is not even allowed to display its flag and play its national anthem.

Let’s return to the example of the introduction, while it is a matter of humiliation to the person who called someone accidentally by their wrong name, it is an even bigger humiliation and affront to intentionally say a wrong name. The situation of Taiwan is more complicated though as only intentionally saying a wrong name, as not only Taiwan is being slighted by being called the wrong name but China is being antagonized by not saying the alias, which can lead to a potentially violent conflict. To complicate the situation even further there is a fierce debate in Taiwan between people who are in favor of the various monikers and the people who prefer their land to be called Taiwan. However, the current practicality of constructive ambiguity to be able to maintain business relations and Taiwan’s ability to be part of the international stage without antagonizing China too much is not a reason to keep on doing this. This ambiguity cannot be an approach for the future. Leaving Taiwan in a political limbo of blissful ignorance regarding its status is neither viable nor is it wanted by Taiwan or China.     Voices are becoming louder in Taiwan that independence should be the next step in the country’s history under its own name, however, China’s response to this has always been very clear. Wei Fenghe, China’s foreign minister stated in 2018 in regards to emerging independent calls: “[t]he Taiwan issue is related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and touches upon China’s core interests. If someone tries to separate out Taiwan, China’s army will take the necessary actions at any cost.”[1]                                                                     

How the question of the status of Taiwan should or could be resolved is as complicated as the history that has led to the current situation. There are no definitive answers to the question of how the process should be started with the least aggression possible, but what is clear is that this ambiguity needs to become a clarity. But the only clarity there is currently is to say one of the many monikers of Taiwan and know that someone will always be saying: “this is not the name! It is….”

[1] “As China Rattles Its Sword, Taiwanese Push a Separate Identity,” The New York Times, last modified October 26, 2018, As China Rattles Its Sword, Taiwanese Push a Separate Identity - The New York Times (archive.org).

Picture: https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Sports/Beijing-Winter-Olympics/Team-Taiwan-to-skip-Olympic-ceremonies-amid-name-row 

About the author

Louisa Thomas 

Student East Asian Studies and History Today (RUG)